Saturday, January 29, 2011

Love in Adaptions

I've just discovered the new BBC `Sherlock' which puts Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in a modern setting.  I've only actually seen two episodes- the un-aired pilot, called A Study in Pink (A play on Holme's first case, A Study in Scarlet) and the episode The Great Game - but I was impressed.  The producers really cared about Sir. Arthur Connan Doyle's amazing consulting detective, and it showed.  They remembered that Watson is a young army doctor, discharged after he was wounded in battle -and that he carries his gun into dangerous cases.  Also, Sherlock isn't a celebrity until Watson starts writing about him.  

It got me thinking about another screen adaption of a series I love: namely The Chronicles of Narnia.    The producers could have left the background creatures as just that -background- but they chose, instead, to try and make their mythic creatures as `real' and detailed as possible.  I think my favorite moment in the movies is where the father Centaur helps his little girl straiten her sword.  The Centaurs are usually so stern and warlike, that seeing a soft family moment gives me the warm fuzzies in a big way.

Love and respect is evident all over BBC's Sherlock and the new Chronicles movies, and that love and respect makes it easy for the audience to love the movies too.  In writing, you hear a lot about the importance of getting details right.  I guess what it comes down to is respect.  If you respect the world you're creating it shines through, and that makes it easy for your audience to care too.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


This week I read Gerald Morris's latest book, `Legend of the King,' the final installment in his humorous  `Squire's Tales' series.  In the series, Morris retells stories about the knights of King Arthur.  The books are funny and engaging whether or not one is familiar with the stories they're based on, but for people who have read some of the original stories, the humor takes on added layers.  There's a hilarious passage in the second book describing a shield that always has me in stitches -not just because of the way its written but also because I recognize the passage it's based on -the only dull section in an otherwise gripping 14th century poem called `Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'.  

So much power in a retelling comes from the audience's knowledge of the source material.  You can twist a familiar story to surprise your audience.  You can create suspense just by mentioning a character the audience knows is going to play a nasty role.  (The BBC TV show Merlin is fond of that tactic.)  Often the original fairy tales or legends are just the bare bones of a story.   The fun is in the telling, and sometimes the audience forgets that they know the outcome.  Shannon Hale's `Goose Girl' and Gail Carson Levine's `Ella Enchanted' are both that way.  They make you forget you know the story, so the end is comes as a surprise. Sometimes the original story just serves as a backdrop to the author's real story, so what happens to the characters is not predetermined by the tale after all, like Tia Nevitt's `The Sevenfold Spell' (the only story I mentioned here that isn't mid-grade or young adult.)  

What are your favorite retelling, and why?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Thinking about the Saga of the Volsung

This week I discovered the answer to what has long been (to me) one of the great literary mysteries: why did Siegfried, the hero of Wagner's Ring Cycle, kill his mentor on the word of a couple birds?  I mean, can you picture what would happen in modern times if Siegfried tried to get off a murder charge with `But your honor, some birds said he was plotting to kill me and steal my dragon gold.  It was self defense!'  

Okay, I know that one cannot understand an ancient epic if one tries to read it with a modern mindset, but every time I came across that particular part in the story, my mind would start shouting `hold it Siegfried!  Who're you going to believe?  The guy who raised you, or a bunch of flighty birds?'  And every time, Siegfried picked the birds.  

This week, I finally read The Saga of the Volsung (translated by Jesse Byock.) which is the story on which Wagner's Ring Cycle was based. There the birds say one line that gave Siegfried a genuine motive for killing his mentor:  "He is not as wise as I thought if he spares Regin after having killed his brother."  

Now, in The Saga of the Volsung, the poet has just finished giving numerous examples of how vitally important avenging blood-kin is to the Nordic people.  It's a matter of honor.  Regin is lamenting the fact that he sent our hero (called Sigurd in this version) to kill his brother, the dragon Fafnir.  Suddenly the Siegfried/Sigurd's actions make sense.  Regin really is a threat, and if Sigurd had thought about it two seconds, he'd have realized that without the birds even telling him so.  Since in Wagner's version, Siegfried's mentor is no relation to the dragon, that motivation gets lost. 

All of this got me thinking about myths, and legends, and fairy tales.  So often when you're reading a fairy-tale there will be a piece that just doesn't work.  Someone will toss their comb over their shoulder and it'll transform into an impenetrable forest or something, and you'll be left scratching your head, wondering how the hero knew to toss his comb in the first place.  Likely it all made sense to the original audience -just as Sigurd killing Regin makes sense once you know that Regin is the dragon's brother and would be honor-bound to try to kill Sigurd.  People's attitudes change over time, and when stories don't change with them, well, that's where you get a lot of weirdness.  

One thing I love to do when writing is invent myths, legends, and fairy-tales for my story culture.  Thinking about what people used to believe gives you a wonderful foundation for deciding what people believe currently.  Even when attitudes shift, something of the old often lingers.  

So what about you guys?  Anyone else who uses invented myths and fairy-tales as an important building block in writing?  Anyone have a favorite fairy-tale or legends with pieces that just don't make sense?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A bit unwell

Well, once again I am blogging to say I'm not blogging.  I managed to catch whatever is going around, and all I'm good for today is reading, sipping hot tea, and (ahem) eating medicial chocolate.  (In movies people are always passing someone a bottle for medicial purposes.  The teetotallers among us need a medicial pick-me-up once in awhile too.)  I hope you all are doing well, despite the flue season being hard upon us.  

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year

The New Year has me thinking about one of my Christmas presents.  My sister got me a DVD of `Nim's Island.'  The movie is about courage.  At one point Nim's father says that courage is made up of hundreds of smaller choices.  That struck me a very true and profound.  So much of a person's life is little decisions that snowball to form them into who they are.  And sometimes you don't know what sort of person you are until you've passed through a difficult situation and can see what choices you made.

I know I've surprised myself a time or two.  I've done things I never thought I'd do, but when the time came to make a choice I found out I wasn't exactly who I thought I was, after all.  They weren't earth-shattering decisions, but a choice doesn't have to be big to someone watching -and might even seem stupid or cowardly- and still be the bravest thing you've ever done.  

One of the exercises in Donald Maast's `Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook' is to have your character do something they would never do, while still acting completely in character.  When you think about it, that exercise is all about getting past who your characters think they are to find out who they are in truth.  

So, what are your thoughts on courage?  Is it just rushing into burning buildings, or fighting monsters, or can it be small things, too, like taking your kid to kindergarten and walking away, or visiting someone who's grieving, even though you don't feel like you're any good at comforting people? Or is courage something else entirely?